A sermon I preached at Toronto Chinese Baptist Church.
I need to make a confession about one of the most satisfying experiences that I had as a teenager. As a child, I was always one of the smallest students in my class. Most often, all the boys and all the girls were bigger than me. This made me frequently the target of some mild bullying. I remember in grade eight that there was another student who was near the same height but stockier than I was. He decided that I was the one to pick on. There were no real physical fights but he really enjoyed knocking me down over and over. That does not sound very satisfying for me.
Let’s fast forward about three years to where I was in the middle of high school. My old junior high school was having an open house because of an anniversary they were celebrating. My friend and I decided to pop in and see our old teachers. We were standing in the foyer when I looked behind me and there was my former class-mate that had enjoyed picking on me. Except now there was a change. In those three years I had grown about a foot and a half. I don’t think he had grown at all. When I say that I looked down on him, I really looked down.
I would love to tell you that I was filled with Christian love for him. But I wasn’t. If I was completely honest, I would have loved if he had picked a fight with me and I could have and shown him how different things really were. That didn’t happen, but I did have a pretty big smirk knowing that I could have if I had chosen.
Let us turn our minds to the story of Joseph. Here is the short version of the story. As a teenager, Joseph was disliked by his brothers. Sibling rivalry is normal but they actually plotted to kill him. They eventually relented from murder and only sold him into slavery. How charitable of them. Many years later, Joseph is in charge of Egypt, the one country with food, and the brothers, unaware of his identity, are seeking his assistance to survive. The brothers were exactly where Joseph wanted them.
Joseph and the Brothers
Let’s flesh out the story a little. When last we left Joseph, he was put in charge of Egypt by Pharaoh to allow them to survive the coming famine. Joseph used his administrative skills to stockpile food during the years of food and to distribute the food during the years of famine. This by itself was an amazing position for Joseph to be in. But things would get more complicated.
The famine affected more than just Egypt. It also included the area where Joseph’s father and brothers lived. Having heard that there was food in Egypt, Joseph sent ten of his sons to purchase food. Joseph immediately recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. Joseph would have looked very much like an Egyptian and this would be the last place that they expected to see their brother. Joseph played with them a bit. He refused to allow Simeon to leave with them and he secretly gave them their money back. Joseph did not want them to come back unless they brought Benjamin back. This is something that their father Jacob refused until things became so bad that he had no choice. They brought Benjamin and again were given food. But Joseph was not playing with them. This time he had his special silver cup placed in Benjamin’s bag and then had him arrested for stealing. Joseph was willing to let the rest go, but Judah, having learned his lesson from being a bad brother, stood his ground and was the brother he was always meant to be.
There was no better time for Joseph to reveal his secret identity. There are a number of Bible events that I would love to be able to see with my own eyes. Imagine the shock that the brothers must have had that their brother, who they had treated so badly, was now in charge of Egypt and was only one that could save their family. They would have been surprised and they would have been afraid. Obviously brothers were capable of doing harmful things to each other. And with his position, Joseph could have done anything he wanted to them without any fear of punishment. The brothers tried to cover up their crime to their father, but Joseph had no such limitations. Joseph reassured them that he would not harm them. How afraid were the brothers? Years later when their father Jacob died, this fear of retaliation came up again (Genesis 50). Their concern was that Joseph was holding back for the sake of their father but now he was free to take vengeance. Once again, Joseph reassured them that he would not hurt them but would rather care for them and their families.
Whatever they felt, the facts are that those who had caused great harm were put into the hands of their former victim.
What Can We Learn?
It is good for us to know what happened with Joseph and his brothers. But it is also important for us to understand the principles that apply to us. We have to believe that God wanted this story to be read by us for a reason. This series is on the six other days. There is a workplace focus, although much of this is applicable to other areas of life as well. Can we imagine the possibility at some time in our life that we are put in a position where we have authority over a person who had once treated us badly? It does not have to be a grade eight bully. We would then have to decide what we would do in such a situation. It is likely that many of would be tempted to either use that authority for our own benefit or at least gloat. But Christianity is not about doing the first thing that we are tempted to do. Here are three principles that we should keep in mind.
I am going to start perhaps in the place that you wouldn’t expect. In fact it seems like the least spiritual and yet it is very important. Have you ever wondered what Joseph was doing by keeping Simeon, putting money in bags, framing Benjamin for stealing the silver cup and those sort of things? Was Joseph just being mischievous? Was Joseph using this as his revenge? Was he trying to cause them stress as they caused him stress? I think there is something else going on here.
What is Joseph doing? He is testing his brothers. He wants to know if they have changed. This does not mean that evidence of change is required for forgiveness. We will get to forgiveness soon. Joseph is trying to determine the nature of the relationship that is possible with his brothers. If his brothers were unrepentant, he would likely still have helped them, but their ongoing relationship would have been different.
Think about the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21. Peter had denied Jesus three times, which is pretty bad. So after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Jesus had already forgiven Peter. What takes place is basically, “So Peter, where do we go from here?” They are negotiating the nature of the relationship.
What happens when someone hurts us? We forgive as we will see in a moment. But that does not mean that we jump right back into the relationship that allowed that hurt. In the workplace, if there is someone actively seeking to sabotage your career, you do not keep giving them those opportunities. If you are in an abusive relationship, you should do what you have to do to prevent them from abusing you. Joseph took the time to test his brothers and that is a good principle for us as well.
I have been talking as if forgiveness is just a given. And it is but it can also be very difficult. We are not talking about forgiving someone for bumping your shoulder on the sidewalk.
Think about all of the bad things that came about from the decision of the brothers to get rid of Joseph. He suffered a tremendous amount, probably more than they expected when they first sold him into slavery. But it is not just the physical suffering. These were his brothers! I doubt that Joseph struggled with the Ishmaelites who bought him. They were faceless strangers. But these were Joseph’s brothers who betrayed his trust. That is the worst kind of emotional pain and something that is not easily forgiven. And yet Joseph did forgive.
Forgiveness is a major topic in the New Testament. Not just forgiveness by God but the need for forgiving others. The two are of course related. I think of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors.” Of all the things that are in the Lord’s Prayer, the one aspect that Jesus gives further teaching on right after the prayer is forgiveness.
Think about Jesus. As you may know, Jesus had a number of half-brothers and sisters. They did not believe his claims and some of them openly mocked him. What did Jesus do? After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his brother James. Forgiveness enabled this one time skeptic to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Forgiveness is important.
How do you forgive someone? It does not have to wait until you feel like it. You can just choose to do it and hope the feelings come later. One way to help that happen is for you to pray regularly for them. Nor do you have to wait until they repent. Some people are unwilling to repent and some are unable. Whatever the situation, we do not have to be left with feelings of bitterness. It only hurts our self.
Reason for Authority
In the two passages where the brothers indicate that they are afraid of Joseph, he replies that all these things have happened because God is using it for the greater good. Although taken in isolation, their actions are completely despicable, seen within the big picture they ended up being the reason by both Egypt and the family of Jacob were able to survive the famine.
This is usually used as a way of understanding why bad things happen to good people. Even though things may be bad, God is working behind the scenes for the greater good. There is truth to this and that is part of what is happening here. But there is something else as well.
Why is Joseph in charge of Egypt? Why did God use all those bad things to get Joseph into this position? Was it because God was also mad with the brothers and God was setting things up for the ultimate payback? It does not seem likely. God used those circumstances in order to make Joseph a blessing to Egypt and the family of Jacob. The plan was for something good. For Joseph to turn that around and use his authority for selfish or evil purposes would have been an insult to God. Joseph was able to hold steady because he understood his purpose.
You are in a certain position right now. You are an employer or an employee. You are a teacher or a student. You are a parent or a child. You know where you are. But why are you there? What is it that God wants you do? Sometimes we overcomplicate this question and we look for something too specific.
I can tell you what you are supposed to do with the role you have been given. It is the same thing that I am supposed to do with what I am doing right now. Live out the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the reign of God, living in obedience to what God wants.
There you are with that person in your office who gave you so much grief at the last company. How do you treat them? With kingdom of God values. Let God reign in your attitudes and actions.
The life of Joseph has provided such great examples for us for our work life and beyond. This story is just as relevant. Joseph suffered tremendously because of the actions of his brothers. Those same brothers fall into Joseph’s hands with Joseph having almost limitless authority. The actions of Joseph need to be understood for our own experience.
Joseph did not just throw himself into the old relationships without testing. Even though we forgive, we do not have to set ourselves up for further abuse. Joseph did forgive them, aside from how the brothers responded. We follow a forgiving God and we must forgive each other. Joseph understood the reason for his authority. We are not given power to take out our pain on others. We are given power to live out the kingdom of God. We do well to live out these principles in every area of life.